Spoiler alert!

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At time of writing this, I am excitedly anticipating April 24th 2019, the release date of “Avengers – Endgame” which will undoubtedly be a landmark cinematic experience.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past decade, the ending of the last Avengers movie “Infinity War” broke all the rules by seemingly killing off a number of major characters who had appeared in a plethora of previous interconnected movies. The internet hive-mind has since then been in overdrive, debating which of the characters will be revived/retrieved/returned. (Take your pick of that last word – you have to have seen the Infinity War movie to understand why I cannot be definitive). And there is always the risk that someone will leak details of the plot which will spoil the enjoyment of the movie.

But already there have been spoilers, by means of the release of a trailer for a forthcoming Spiderman movie to be released this summer. Spiderman was “killed off” at the conclusion of “Endgame” as was another key character, Nick Fury, who also features in the Spiderman trailer. So unless there is some dimension-twisting plotline in the minds of the movie-makers, we already know that Spiderman and Nick Fury will return from the ether during Endgame.

I hate plot spoilers. Therefore I appreciate movie reviews that headline their potential for spoilers so you can decide whether or not to read them. Yet this set me thinking about “spoilers” in business: how many times do leaders/organisations announce key decisions that everyone already knew about?

Early in my career I headed up the North-West regional pilot programme of a government work-based training initiative. There were several regional pilots across the UK, each one approaching work-based training in a different way. The premise was that following the evaluation of the pilots at their conclusion, one approach would then be selected to become the national model. I went along to a national launch event where each region showcased the approach their pilot would be taking over the coming 12 months. Only minutes after proudly concluding my presentation about the North West approach I discovered that a decision had already been taken as to the ultimate approach, shape and content of the national initiative. For whatever reason, central government had decided that they would not wait to evaluate the results, but would make their decision before the pilots had even formally started. Along with many of the other regional leads I met that day, I experienced deflation and disappointment that the innovation and robust testing, which had been positioned as foundations of the initiative, would now matter for nought.

There were probably good reasons for taking that decision at that time, but what was lacking was any communications or discussions as to the thinking behind it. All of the pilots rolled on, and they did great work across the UK, but so many things had been negatively affected by that plot-spoiler, including enthusiasm, motivation, and most importantly for me, trust.

On another occasion I was working for an organisation when a series of large-scale redundancies were announced first on the radio, before anyone in the lower levels of the organisation had been told. The leader’s response to that was to call a meeting and say that he had already been planning to tell us that week. Maybe that was true, but the majority of people didn’t believe it, and instead the feeling was “He only told us because it was announced on the radio. I wonder when he was really planning to tell us?” Once again, trust had been damaged.

And how many times have you had the experience where formal interview processes are carried out, but the water-cooler chat is about how “Well we all knew who was going to get it”?

Plot spoilers damage trust. But leaks do happen, and sometimes decisions have to be taken before the ink is dry. So what can leaders do about it?

The obvious answer might be “Communicate, communicate, communicate”, but communicate about what? It isn’t as simple as suggesting that leaders should share truths earlier. Because sometimes what is true will still be perceived as something different by the receivers.

The leader who told us “We were going to announce the redundancies this week, but the press beat us to it”, might well have been telling the truth. But people didn’t believe him.

When leaders talk about how “we have robust HR procedures and I can assure you that the person selected was the right person for the job” may well be telling the truth. But people may still believe that nepotism, favouritism or just plain politics are at play.

For all of us, at some point, our perceptions are our reality. And you cannot argue against a perception that has become an internal reality – that tends to entrench it even deeper. But what you can do is firstly acknowledge that it IS that person’s reality, and then be brave enough to invite dialogue about it.

Therefore, when leaders recognise that there is doubt, suspicion in peoples’ minds, they need to engage in dialogue about those feelings and those perceptions that are being experienced by their people. Standing up and saying “I can understand why many people didn’t believe me when I told you that I had plans to make the redundancy announcement – tell me more about that”, would have invited a lot of potentially unpalatable feedback. But it would have created a very different conversation, and would have sent us a clear message about his commitment to courageous dialogue.

And leaders who tackle perceptions of favouritism in recruitment by acknowledging the issue; “We recognise that some people believe it isn’t worth applying for a role because decisions have already been taken”, are demonstrating that they are listening to their people and recognising the power of perceptions. Leaders who then ask “So what do we need to do to demonstrate to you, our people, that our HR processes are robust and that decisions are taken fairly?” will hopefully hear something they can then work with.

So while we can never prevent spoilers, as leaders we can always do something about the impact they have.

And if anyone in Marvel would like to give me a call and invite me to share my feelings about the revelations in the new Spiderman trailer, I am very open to that conversation!

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